Los Angeles mom Erica Medine thought life was going to get easier once distance learning ended for the summer. Instead, things got even harder.
“School gave us something to do, and now there’s no structure,” says Medine, who has an eight-year-old daughter. “My patience is wearing thin because she’s always fed up, and her patience is wearing thin because she doesn’t know when this is going to end.”
A lot of parents can relate. Things were stressful enough when they became de facto teachers on top of full-time parents and workers, but many kids seem even more restless now that school is out. Experts say we’re still far from getting back to normal. How can you tell your kids to be patient when everyone feels ready to explode?
Why kids’ impatience is normal
First, understand that kids throwing tantrums or acting out isn’t unusual during these times. “Those negative emotions are appropriate,” says Sarah A. Schnitker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University. After all, even adults don’t know when the pandemic will end. “For kids, such a long time frame can feel like forever,” she says.
And now, without schoolwork to keep kids occupied, impatience can really build up. “Ordinarily, we’d expect negative emotions for a day if a child is adjusting to a change,” says Romie Mushtaq, a neurologist and mindfulness expert based in Orlando. “But if the emotions persist, that means kids’ stress response—the ‘fight or flight’ reaction—hasn’t turned off.” While the waiting goes on and on, stress hormones such as cortisol keep being released in kids’ brains. “They never get to reset to a place of calm,” she says.
The good news is that patience can be learned—and its benefits can be huge.
What science says about patience
You already know patience can help keep your family’s emotional pot from boiling over. But you might not guess its other payoffs.
Schnitker’s own studies reveal that patience is correlated with increased hope, less depression and loneliness, and higher self-esteem—all things that could benefit kids during this stressful time. Plus there’s a long-term benefit: It could help your kids achieve future goals. “We found that when people are patient in pursuit of their goals, they actually exert more effort,” Schnitker says.
And even when being patient feels impossible, you can remind kids that waiting has value too.
“Waiting unlocks new ways of thinking,” says Jason Farman, author of Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting From the Ancient to the Instant World. He points to a brain network dubbed the “imagination network.” “It only kicks in when you’re bored or daydreaming,” he says. "It really unlocks creativity you can’t access otherwise.” (Here’s an article about putting kids’ boredom to good use.)
How to make patience happen
Patience is something kids can learn bit by bit. But remember one crucial point: to teach it, the grown-ups have to learn it too.
“I always tell parents the first three steps are this: A parent must learn to remain calm. A parent must learn to remain calm. And a parent must learn to remain calm,” Mushtaq says. “Eighty percent of our communication is nonverbal body language.” She recommends starting a simple mindfulness practice like the “brain breaks” below; meditation apps can also help. Still not feeling it? “Fake it till you make it” can be a useful mantra in calming the family.
Schnitker says the next step is giving kids a reason to try patience. “It’s getting the ‘why’ alongside the ‘how,’” she says. “I have a four-year-old, and we try to intentionally talk about the big-purpose things in our lives, such as caring for other people.” You might tell impatient kids that while you understand they’re feeling bored or frustrated, you sometimes need to work and take care of yourself too.
Another helpful step is being clear about when day-to-day events start and end. “One of the things that came out of my research is that providing people feedback improves anxiety during wait times,” Farman says. This could mean telling kids start and end times for your conference calls, or providing a daily schedule—even a loose one—around things like meal times, pool time, or outside time. Farman compares this to waiting for a website to load. “If you get a percent bar, that level of feedback engages us, calms us down, and gives us agency over how we can use our time.”
Allowing kids to let out emotions is another key. “How often do we say, ‘You need to calm down?’” asks Mushtaq. In fact, this only prolongs negative emotions, both for adults and children. "When we allow an emotion to be present, it lasts for just about 90 seconds,” she says.
Activities to make waiting easier
Parents and kids can do a lot to make it feel like time is going by faster. Here are the experts’ ideas.
Reconnect. Although distance learning isn't the same as an in-person classroom, kids still saw each other regularly and now might be feeling the loss of social connection. “Children thrive on three things: time, touch, and attention,” says child development expert Roni Cohen Leiderman, dean of Nova Southeastern University’s Mailman Segal Center for Human Development. Leiderman advises prepping meals together, taking the kids when you walk the dog, reading books, or doing puzzles. “It’s about making sure you disconnect from work to connect with your family,” she says, even if that means taking a break every few hours to spend a few moments with your kids.
Get together. As it gets safer, you may be able to bring back much-wanted playdates, with precautions. “For children old enough to understand and follow safety rules, consider a social-distanced playdate while wearing masks,” Leiderman says. “Your kids will be in their safe bubble, but they’ll be interacting with other children too.” Medine has been trying this outside with two trusted friends.
Start a project. Having time to fill can mean an opportunity for kids to pursue longer projects they’ve never tried. “This is a good time to observe your children and find their passion,” Leiderman says. “My granddaughter discovered baking, and my grandson is teaching himself to play the piano.” Learning a language, starting a garden, writing a book, or even getting an early start on a Halloween costume can help time pass and give shape to the days.
Take a brain break. Mushtaq teaches this beginning mindfulness practice for young kids: Try gazing at one thing for three to five minutes, such as clouds in the sky. (Check out these cloud-watching activities.) “We call it a brain break,” Mushtaq says. For third graders and up, Mushtaq teaches “square breathing,” which is inhaling for four counts, holding the breath for four counts, exhaling for four, and holding for four. “When we do it for three minutes, it brings down our stress levels, and brings up hormones that help us to feel calm.”
Medine is adding mindfulness breaks to her daughter’s days with daily walks. Still, having some down days is normal. “Being patient doesn’t mean kids never feel those negative emotions,” Schnitker says. “But they can take those feelings, pause, and do something constructive with them. And we can do that as adults too.”.